The Golden Years of Tractor History

In the short span of 1917-1920, tractors were used to replace farm horses conscripted to World War I battlefields, where the animals' lifespan averaged two weeks.

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Happy Farmer tractors were manufactured first in Minneapolis, then in LaCrosse, Wis.

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When 1921 rolled around, the 166 tractor companies in existence in the United States had no idea most of them were doomed. How could they?

Everything was going swimmingly. Tractor sales leaped from 29,670 in 1916 to 203,207 in 1920. In the short span of 1917-1920, tractors were used to replace farm horses conscripted to World War I battlefields, where the animals' lifespan averaged two weeks. Tractors were being used to replace men who were away fighting "the war to end all wars." During the war years, tractors were used to increase U.S. farm production: tractors outworked horses, and they didn't eat grain. At the same time tractors were being used on the battlefield, their role as a vital machine on the farm was gaining traction.

It was no wonder, then, that from 1917 through 1920, tractor manufacturers introduced, manufactured and sold at least 300 new models. These included all different brands, some of them very well-known, like the Rumely 30-60 OilPull, Avery 6-cylinder, 14-28 and trio of motor cultivators, Case Cub Junior 15-30, 9-18, 10-18, 12-20 and others, as well as the popular Waterloo Boy Model N 12-25.

Other models were less well-known: the Big Bull 12-24, Big Four 20-35, Emerson-Brantingham 9-16, 12-20 and others, and Fair-Mor 10-20 and 12-25. Still others were complete strangers on the scene: the Appleton 14-28 and 12-20, the Chase 8-16, Farquhar 15-25, 18-35 and 25-50, the Keck-Gonnerman 18-35 and the 25-50, and Kinkhead 12-25 and 12-30 (which went out of production when R.S. Kinkhead was drafted into the military).

In modern parlance, those years could be called the VHS-Beta test years. Which form of the tractor would prove most useful, most effective, cheapest, longest-lasting, and ultimately, best? Which type would win out? Would it be the tricycle, drum wheel, four-wheel, auto plow/motor plow, half-track, full crawler or even tractor-wheel add-ons?

Tricycle type tractors

Tricycle (or three-wheel) type tractors had been popular since the astounding success of the Little Bull tractor from 1913-1914, when it became the fastest-selling tractor yet and took over the tractor production lead. Other three-wheelers followed in quick succession, among them the New Age, Happy Farmer, Square-Turn, Wharton and Dixieland.

The Little Bull was doomed by a design that left oiled parts open to the ravages of dirt. Because the machine was so close to the ground, soil could swirl and pack in before it was blown away or dropped down. On other three-wheelers, light front ends tended to bounce, causing the machines to tip. That problem was at the root of changes to some early three-wheelers, as with the Big Bull, which added a large, heavy cast iron ball atop the front wheel, and an arrow, used to help the farmer determine if the front wheel was still in the furrow.

Some of that danger was alleviated in design, like that of the Boring 35. The Boring drove from two front wheels, with the driver sitting on the lighter single third wheel, which was doubtless more stable. The Victory 9-18 was just reversed, with the driver over the two rear drive wheels.

Another, safer variation of the tricycle tractor was the Gray 18-36, whose single rear drive wheel was a drum, almost as wide as the distance between the two regular front wheels. The Common Sense 20-50, one of the earliest field-tested tractors, used the same pattern, and the Dakota 15-27 was similar as well.

The Happy Farmer tractor (which almost immediately became the LaCrosse Happy Farmer, Model A 8-16 and Model B 12-24) had an elongated frame with the single front wheel stretched out far ahead for a lower center of gravity and greater stability. Doubtless as a nod to safety, LaCrosse Tractor Co. turned to four-wheelers with the Model G 7-12 tractor in 1921. The Gile Model L 10-20 was another three-wheeler, from a company that tried four-wheelers and crawlers, as well.

Perhaps the most stable of all three-wheelers was one of the least-known, the Montana 15-20, which used all wheels as drive wheels. With its large rear wheel, it could be considered a variation of the drum-drive tractor.

Four-wheelers

Four-wheelers did not present the stability problems of three-wheelers, but the early models did suffer the same challenge faced by steam traction engines: size and weight. The Twin City 60-90, manufactured by Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co., weighed 28,000 pounds and was 22 feet long, while the Minneapolis 35-70, also manufactured in 1917, came in at 22,500 pounds and 17 feet long. These behemoths did not have the versatility of smaller and lighter, though little-known tractors like the Samson Model M, Tioga 15-27, or Wellman-Seaver-Morgan tractor (also called the Akron 15-30), the latter "noted for its rugged construction and accessibility." Accessibility was a given: The tractor's abbreviated hood left two-thirds of the engine exposed.

Most four-wheel tractors of the time were powered by a pair of rear traction wheels. However, the Depue four-wheel drive 20-32, the Fitch four-wheel drive 20-36, and the Leonard four-wheel drive 20-35 tractor, to name just three, were all four-wheel drive tractors.

There were other four-wheel drive variations as well. The Post Model C 12-20 had one drive wheel in front, one in the rear and two wheels in the center. The traction wheels on the Adams Sidehill Tractor moved up and down so the tractor could operate on hillsides without danger of tipping.

Motor plows

Due to the importance of plowing, some companies opted to manufacture motor plows, with plowshares under-slung beneath the tractor. Entrants in that category included the Nevada (na-vayda) motor plow, Opsata motor plow, Parker motor plow (which could use several different implements), the Louisville motor plow (with removable plows) and the Hackney auto plow, among others.

One of the Hackney's unique features allowed it to plow in one direction, and do other farm work and road work while moving in the opposite direction. The plows were probably difficult to remove, which would account for the different-direction feature. A blade could also be attached.

Auto plows and motor plows didn't firmly catch on in the farming community, probably because they seemed to have limited use - they were called plows, after all - or because of the nuisance associated with changing implements. In comparison, implement hookup and removal on tractors was simple. Also, there was no complete line of implements for auto plows and motor plows. Most motor plow/auto plow companies went out of business by the early 1920s.

Half-track crawlers

The Bates Steel Mule Model D 15-22, introduced in 1919, was one of the best-known half-track tractors (one crawler in the back, and conventional wheels in the front). Others included the Blewett Webfoot 53, which offered a long space between the rear halftracks and the front wheels; the Leader Model C 18-36 and D 25-40; the Yuba Ball Tread 12-20 and 20-35; and the Acme 12-25s.

The Beltrail Model B 12-20, with its single caterpillar track in the rear middle of the machine, was an unusual half-track model. One of the oddest birds was the Lombard Auto Tractor-Truck. With a long wheelbase, two front wheels and two crawlers in the rear, it had the ability to haul a 5-ton load in between. With sleds, it could haul up to 60 tons.

Full crawlers

The difficult soil of California spawned crawler tractors. Best, Holt, Yuba Ball Tread, Moon Pathmaker and other full crawlers reflected the state's need for farm tractors that wouldn't sink into peat or compact the soil.

Other crawlers produced in the years just prior to 1920 included the Austin Multipedal 8-15 and 18-35 models, Bullock Creeping Grip 18-30, (with its odd tube-style radiator like old Twin City tractors), Bear 25-35 and Franklin 15-30. The Holt Caterpillar 25-40 and Caterpillar 40-60, forerunners of today's Caterpillar brand tractors, were also manufactured during that era.

Not everything built in that era was massive. The Laughlin 8-20 gave 1,200 square inches of creeper track surface, about 40 percent of the traction surface on the Holt 40-60.

Unique constructions

Odd, non-standard types of construction characterized some tractors during the formative "golden years" from 1917-1920. The Nilson Junior 16-25, for instance, was pitched as a five-wheeled tractor, but in essence it was a drum-drive with three wheels in the back. And as many as 75 companies offered add-ons allowing the farmer (or the "farmerette," as women who farmed were called) to make his own tractor out of the family auto. Most were designed for use with Ford automobiles. These included the UniTractor ("A Ford to a tractor in 15 minutes"), the Tracford and the Staude Mak-a-Tractor, the latter designed for the Model T.

The add-ons came with their own set of problems. They weren't tractors, and couldn't supply the power of tractors. They often overheated the automobile's cooling system or created problems with rear axles. Regardless of advertising claims, considerable time and effort was needed to make the modification. When a car was needed, it had to wait; when a tractor was needed, it had to wait. Some were expensive, compared to the price of a new cheap tractor. And the car's interior got much dirtier than it would in normal use.

Clouds on the horizon

By early 1921, storm clouds began to appear on the horizon. Fly-by-night manufacturers, shoddy tractors, unproven machines, lack of field testing and inflated claims made farmers leery of small, and especially, newer companies. The advent of the Nebraska Tractor Tests in 1920 came too late for tractors produced during the "Golden Years," and the final blow for many enterprises was the agricultural depression of 1921-1922.

Then came the Great Tractor War, brought about in part by the Fordson. The Fordson wasn't as great a machine as the Ford automobile. Early models tipped easily (though that could be corrected with wide rear fender bottoms), and farmers couldn't sit on the seat, which got hot from gears directly beneath them. But the Fordson was relatively cheap, and Henry Ford had a good name.

Fordsons sold for $625 in 1921. In 1922, the price dropped to $395, less than the actual cost of production, some said. International Harvester Co. was the only other company that could afford to lower its prices substantially and stay in the market. Many smaller companies couldn't compete and went out of business, both because of the economic pressures of the Depression, and because of the lowered prices. Within a year, Fordson made up 75 percent of the market.

Fortunes, though, have a way of changing. By the 1930s, seven tractor companies dominated the tractor market, but Fordson was not one of them. The giants included International Harvester Co. with 44.3 percent of the market, Deere & Co., 21.7 percent; Allis-Chalmers, 12.6 percent; Case, 7.4 percent; Oliver, 5 percent; Massey Ferguson, 2.9 percent; and Minneapolis-Moline, 2.9 percent. The few remaining manufacturers shared just 3 percent of the market. For small manufacturers, a golden era had ended. FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; email: bvossler@juno.com